Health officials urge parents and hospitals to take action during Infant Safe Sleep

New data shows unsafe sleep environments account for nearly all unexpected infant deaths in Minnesota. The Minnesota Department of Health and the Minnesota Department of Human Services are marking Infant Safe Sleep Week (November 5-11) by encouraging parents to know the ABCs of safe sleep and encouraging hospitals to become safe sleep certified.

State health department analysis of sudden unexpected infant deaths in 2015 found that 53 of the 54 deaths that happened while infants slept happened in unsafe sleep environments. Also, about 9 percent of new mothers report that their health care providers did not talk to them about how to lay their babies down to sleep, according to 2012-2014 data from the Minnesota Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System (PRAMS).

A key takeaway for parents and other caregivers is to know the ABCs of safe sleep:

ALONE: Infants should always sleep or nap alone.
BACK: Always put a baby on their back to sleep or nap.
CRIB: Babies should always sleep or nap in their own safety-approved crib or play yard.

In addition to these basics, experts recommend that infants should always sleep without blankets or pillows because the risk of suffocation is higher when loose objects are in the crib with the infant. Instead of using blankets to keep infants warm, parents are urged to dress babies in pajamas or other clothing appropriate for the temperature. As always, parents should talk with a doctor or nurse if they have questions or concerns.

Recognizing the importance of building awareness around this public health issue, Governor Mark Dayton proclaimed this week Safe Sleep Week.

“While many providers are doing a lot to inform parents about safe sleep for their infants, we want to applaud those hospitals that go the extra mile to train staff and make sure all parents know the ABCs of safe sleep before they take their babies home,” said Minnesota Commissioner of Health Dr. Ed Ehlinger.

One hospital leading the way is St. Luke’s in Duluth. The facility is the first hospital in Minnesota to receive a National Safe Sleep Hospital Certification by maintaining a safe sleep policy, annually training staff, auditing progress, using sleep sacks instead of blankets and providing education to parents prior to discharge.

Efforts by the Minnesota Department of Human Services to ramp up safe sleep practices in licensed child care showed how greater attention to the issue can pay off.

“Infant deaths from unsafe sleep practices are preventable and we know training is critical,” said Human Services Commissioner Emily Piper. “Since we implemented new infant safe sleep standards and training for providers in 2013, infant deaths in licensed child settings have dropped significantly. Child care providers have also played a key role in reducing infant deaths by educating parents about infant safe sleep practices.”

The health department review of infant deaths found that soft items such as blankets, pillows, crib bumpers and toys in the crib pose a hazard, as does exposure to cigarette smoke. It is also important for the infant to sleep separately from other sleeping children and adults since research has found that keeping infants in bed with others is hazardous. One positive alternative is co-rooming, where the baby sleeps in their own safe crib, bassinette or play yard but is still nearby for breastfeeding and night-time diaper changes. A safe sleeping environment is just as important during naptime as it is during night-time sleeping.

Health department analysis showed several notable risk factors involved in the 53 sleep-related infant deaths in Minnesota in 2015. Among the findings:

93 percent had loose objects around them, such as pillows or blankets, or were not placed on a firm surface, such as a crib mattress, to sleep.
49 percent of the babies were sharing a sleep surface, such as a bed, sofa or recliner, with another person.
27 percent were in an unsafe sleep position, such as being placed on their side or belly.

Health department analysts also noted that in Minnesota, the rate of sudden unexpected infant deaths is two times as high for infants born to black/African-American and American Indian mothers compared to infants born to white mothers. In contrast, the rates are lowest among infants born to Asian/Pacific Islander and Hispanic mothers. These findings track with other data indicating the rates of infant deaths are strongly influenced by social and economic factors such as income, education and housing.